Nineteen-year-old singer/songwriter Jackson Gillies is no stranger to big stages. He won Teen Star in 2016. He’s performed with Katy Perry at the One805 Kick Ash Bash Thomas Fire and Montecito mudslide fundraiser. He even has a TED Talk about his rarely talked-about autoinflammatory disease, hidradenitis-suppurativa, which has been viewed by 78,000 people. Last week, that stage became much bigger, however, when Gillies auditioned for ABC’s American Idol reboot in front of judges Lionel Richie, Luke Bryan, and Katy Perry. I caught up with Gillies over the phone ahead of his televised audition.
The first three episodes of Idol have each been viewed by at least seven million people. What are your thoughts on having that sort of exposure? It’s crazy. I’ve heard those numbers and have never been able to wrap my head around the amount of people who are going to see me. I’m so unbelievably grateful and thankful that I get to have this opportunity.
Can you tell me anything about the audition? What is the waiting like? Did you interact with the other musicians? I did definitely get to hang out with some other people. As much as I am a singer or songwriter, I’m very much a musician and a guitar player. There were definitely some jam sessions that happened. I immediately became friends with this guy who I had actually seen on Instagram making guitar videos. We did blues in E for like 20 minutes. When you’re a musician, you can do that for hours.
The contestants were all really nice. There wasn’t a single person I met who wasn’t really uplifting. This generation is realizing when you give love you get it back, especially in a time when music is so crazy and it’s hard to be an artist. It was really great to see.
Was there one judge that you were particularly excited or nervous to sing in front of? I have individual compartmentalized respect for each one. Lionel Richie has made so much unbelievable, timeless music and worked with so many artists; Katy Perry is a legend; and Luke Bryan is like the biggest name in country music. It was hard to wrap my head around this whole experience, but Katy Perry was really big and someone I’ve met before.
Has going on American Idol always been a goal for you? It was something I was not quite seeing in my future. People always said I should try out, but I try to be really hyperaware of where I am with my music. The word “perspective” keeps popping up in a lot of interviews that I’ve been doing. It shapes the music you will make and how your message is being put out. I always thought I’m not really ready for that exposure. If I did Idol, I’d not want to be a flash in the pan. I’d want to be an artist, someone that will stick with you and stay in your library and you can watch grow over time. I feel like that moment is now. I’m really honing in on my songwriting and my craft, and I’m ready to be an artist for people.
Other than Idol, what have you been up to? I’m working on a new single. I’m back in the studio, producing in Ojai with Jesse Siebenberg, who I worked with on my last song, “Miss Me Too.” He played pedal steel on most of the A Star Is Born soundtrack and was actually in the band in the movie. He’s great to work with.
Who are your musical heroes and role models for your career? Well, I started with the early stuff: ’60s and ’70s with Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Neil Young, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. I love that music to death, and I think it’s timeless. It was true to people’s souls, so I think it will last forever.
What I’m really going for is the blend with that and popular music, and that’s where I look up to John Mayer. He is a huge influence for me because he did that. He said in an interview he wants his music to be pop with the expressiveness and freedom of jazz. I add to that and say I want pop with that as well as with the grit of the blues and the genuine lyricism of folk music that makes you cry and laugh and drive your car really fast with the windows down.